what's in sunscreen

Summer Safety: What’s in Sunscreen?

By Melody Sun, clinical pharmacist at CHOC

The skin is the largest organ of the body, and our best protection against the outside environment. Sunlight stimulates the skin to produce vitamin D, however, daily prolonged exposure to radiation from the sun can cause wrinkles, freckles, and, in the worst case, skin cancer. Sunscreen can protect the skin so that it can continue to protect the rest of the body. Remember that radiation from the sun penetrates the skin even on cloudy and snowy days, so it is important to apply sunscreen whenever going outside.

Knowing when to apply is the first step, but what is the difference between products? Navigating your way through the endless number of products can be challenging. The active ingredients, which are listed in the Drug Facts Label, protect the skin from different types of ultraviolet (UV) radiation called UVA and UVB. UVA reaches deeper into the part of the skin that provides support and nourishment to the rest of the skin layers. UVB can damage the part of the skin that contains important structures such as blood vessels and nerve endings. Sunscreen protects the skin by reflecting or absorbing the radiation.  The ‘reflective’ property is not as strong as the ‘absorptive’ property because the UV radiation can hit other areas.

Let the following table be a guide to help you understand the ingredients in your sunscreen, and how each of them is important in helping protect you and your family.

Active Ingredient Radiation Coverage Considerations
Absorbs radiation

Best UVA coverage. Must be in combination with other ingredients (ie, octocrylene). However, may degrade other sunscreen ingredients.
Ecamsule ✔ (partial) Must be in combination with other ingredients (ie, octocrylene). Less water resistant.
Oxybenzone ✔ (partial) Can cause allergic reactions, not water resistant

Glycerol PABA

Most potent UVB absorber, potential for allergic reactions (related to PABA)
Octocrylene Stabilizes other ingredients.


Water resistant, avoid combination with avobenzone (destabilizes avobenzone’s UVA protection).
Octyl salicylate (octisalate)

Trolamine salicylate


Stabilizes other ingredients, water resistant, less potent in UVB absorption than others
Ensulizole ✔︎ Less oily application, not water resistant
Reflects and disperses radiation
Titanium dioxide Transparent formulations available
Zinc oxide Leaves whitened layer on skin and clothing

Note: The above chart is not all inclusive.

Consider the following guidelines when making your selection:

  • Make sure the combination of active ingredients covers both UVA and UVB
  • If you’ll be sweating or around water, select a combination that is water-resistant.
  • ‘Water resistant’ labeling means the product retains its activity for at least 40 minutes in water. ‘Very water resistant’ means at least 80 minutes.
  • Will you be in the sun all day? If so, select a higher SPF depending on your skin tone and individual sensitivity to sunburns.

Consult your child’s pediatrician with questions on specific sun prevention mechanisms for your family.

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One thought on “Summer Safety: What’s in Sunscreen?”

  1. One more thing to look for in a sunscreen is “broad spectrum” on the label. As the author says UVA and UVB rays are both a concern. Broad spectrum sunscreens protect against both. It’s why all our suncare products are broad spectrum.

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